GameFlo’s Chijioge “Chi” Nwogu and Ian Allen on bringing basketball to the tabletop with PICKUP

Chijioge Nwogu, Ian Allen, GameFlo

Guys, it’s great to connect. To kick us off, what set you on the path to game design?
Chi Nwogu, CEO & Co-Founder, GameFlo: It was an ends to a means. I used to work in fantasy basketball and fantasy football – I’d help consumers play this game where you pick players and build a team. I enjoyed that, but designing a board game was completely new to me. I knew games can engage people and help people learn skills. That’s what got me into game design.

Ian Allen, CTO & Co-Founder, GameFlo: For me, I’ve always loved card games. I grew up playing a lot of Pokémon and as an adult played Hearthstone. I liked to break them down and look at what made them work… But I hadn’t thought about working in game design until Chi came to me with this idea for GameFlo.

GameFlo’s debut game is PICKUP – a basketball-themed card game of strategy and chance. How did this come about?
Chi: I spent time in finance on Wall Street. I built a sports technology company. I would talk to young people about what I did and the moments when we connected most was while talking about games and sports. That set me on the path to create a company centred around creating games that engage people and help people feel seen. I want to build communities through games. That’s where the idea came from.

We then started talking to schools and after-school programmes to see if kids would play this card game and be engaged by it. We started playtesting PICKUP in 2019… I spent two weeks as a camp counsellor at a camp for middle school kids and I focused on observational assessments. The kids played it at breakfast, lunch… Non-stop! That gave us something to build from, and we playtested and tweaked it from there.

We initially made PICKUP a deck-building game because we felt it would keep the game accessible, and also scalable. You can now play it three different ways. There’s a quick version, a two-player version and a multi-player version.

Chijioge Nwogu, Ian Allen, GameFlo

Ian, at what point in this journey did you join Chi?
Ian: It was fairly early on. I’ve known Chi for a long time and he hit me up with that early idea for the company. It resonated with me because I’ve learned a lot of skills in my life through playing games. I was intrigued by this idea of capturing kids attention with a game.

Has the game morphed much from its first iteration?
Chi: Yes! We don’t call it an educational game anymore! We learned from talking to young people – and adults – that the educational games space is tricky. Kids just want to play and have a good time. So we broadened our scope in terms of how we want to reach people. Doing that has helped us enormously – it helped us get the game into Target and means we can really grow and scale the company.

We’ll dive into your Target deal in a moment, but what is it about PICKUP that’s resonating with kids? Does the basketball theme play a big part?
Chi: The gameplay resonated early on, and if a kid likes basketball, that helps. It has cool characters and is quick to understand. And kids who aren’t sports fans still love our inclusive characters. The design draws non-basketball fans in, and once you play the game, you realise you don’t need to know the ins and outs of basketball to play PICKUP. Credit to our phenomenal art director, Glenn.

Chijioge Nwogu, Ian Allen, GameFlo

We don’t see a lot of basketball games in the board game space. Why do you feel that is?
Ian: It’s a really good question. Maybe there’s a perception that there’s not a huge crossover between sports fans and tabletop gamers. We’ve discovered that while a theme is important, if the gameplay is good, it’ll resonate. That’s what matters most.

I’ve been a fan of deck builders like Ascension, Dominion, Star Realm and one thing people love about fantasy basketball is building your team, so there are some connections there. It was interesting to us to see what it would look like to bring those worlds together. And while I love deck builders, for new players there are some hurdles when it comes to grasping the mechanics and ways to build your own deck. That prompted us to make PICKUP more accessible.

You launched PICKUP on Kickstarter initially. What appealed about that route?
Chi: We found that lots of independent game companies had built momentum and a customer base from Kickstarter, so that appealed to us. We launched our Kickstarter campaign in May 2021 because our original launch in 2020 was delayed due to Covid. We were told that sports games don’t do well and educational games don’t do well, so the odds were against us but we were determined to kick butt!

Our goal was $20,000 – people told us to go for $5,000 or $10,000, but we believed in the strength of our brand and went for it! We spent three years building a community around the game before launching on Kickstarter and we passed the $20,000 mark on day one of the campaign. It was great!

I also wanted to ask you about the artwork in the game. What steered your approach to that?
Ian: We started with some mood boards and then we looked for artists across the world whose work resonated with the boards. We found a great artist in Argentina – Ivan Zigaran – and he’d done some great caricatures of footballers. He was great at doing these really dynamic body poses. His style really fit what we were going for – he was spot on.

Chijioge Nwogu, Ian Allen, GameFlo

Before we wrap up, we should mention that PICKUP is now available in Target. How did that happen?
Chi: It was a case of right time, right place. We applied to be part of the Target Forward Founders project. It’s a programme designed to help start-ups get retail ready within three years. Out of 5,000 brands that applied, Target picked 30 to take part – and we got picked. The idea is that after this intensive eight-week programme, you’re on your way to get into Target within three years. We did that programme and focused on making the Target shopper see themselves in our game. We also sold Target on the fact that we’re starting with basketball, but we want to do more PICKUP games with other sports. And also the fact we could do licensed versions of the game. Essentially, we want to build a portfolio of well-designed sports games.

Target saw the potential of our game and the deal came about quite quickly. Out of the 30 companies that made our Forward Founders class, we’re the only one that’s in Target already.

Amazing. Huge congrats on that. You mentioned expansion plans for the PICKUP brand. What sports make sense to bring into games next?
Che: Our two foundational sports are basketball and soccer. We’re big Premier League fans and played FIFA non-stop throughout college! And these are the two biggest global sports, so it made sense from both a personal and business point of view… And the FIFA World Cup will be in the US in 2026. Having our game aligned with that in some way would be really exciting. But yes, we’ll build it out from basketball and soccer.

Exciting. Last question. What fuels your creativity?
Ian: Playing games. I try to play all kinds of games and play with different people. That inspires me.

Chi: For me, it’s interactions with people. I get a lot out of playtests and seeing how people react to the game. How we see something isn’t always how someone else will see it. It’s useful to be reminded of that. And that extends to generally being close to your customer. That inspires me.

Guys, this has been fun. A huge thanks again for taking time out – and good luck with the continued success of PICKUP.

To stay in the loop with the latest news, interviews and features from the world of toy and game design, sign up to our weekly newsletter here

Stay up to date with the latest news, interviews and opinions with our weekly newsletter
Back to top arro

Sign Up

Enter your details to receive Mojo updates & news.